A basketball sits on an outdoor bench.

A Guide to Your First Time Coaching Basketball

This post is a follow-on to the generic article A Guide to Your First Time Coaching Sports. This article provides specifics for first time basketball coaches getting started with their first youth team. Before reading this post, review the parent article to get proper background information.

When you’re done, you’ll be ready to start your first season coaching youth basketball!

I’ll start by pointing out that I have coached for many years in local YMCA and town leagues as well as in various local tournaments. I use our local YMCA program as an example several times in this article. I’m a huge fan of how they run their program and because they embody many of the balanced principles I apply, I highly recommend them.

Expectations

The game of basketball has been around for over a hundred years. And with extensive television coverage given to the NBA and college basketball, the teams and top players are generally well known. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is knowledgeable in the game; especially kids.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming your players already understand the game of basketball. For example, a first time player may know nothing more than basketball players shoot the ball into the hoop. What’s worse, they may think they know the game based on what they see from players on TV. But you don’t always want your youth players imitating the behaviors of the pros.

Your youth athletes are going to need explanations of the basic concepts and rules of the game. You didn’t become a coach to just to supervise them running around a court, so you need to make sure you teach them how to play.

You should have similar expectations for yourself. Even if you’ve played basketball, take the time to re-train yourself so you can be a better teacher and coach.

Training

Some leagues, like the YMCA, will provide coaches training specific to each age division. Some even require this training for their coaches. But if training is not available you can get plenty of useful information from sites like BalancedCoaches.com!

First, you should become familiar with the rules of the game. Many basketball leagues and organizations such as the NBA and FIBA have published their own rules customization, but you should start with the basic Rules of Basketball.

Unlike football or baseball, most of the rules of the game are easy to understand. There are a few exceptions, such as what constitutes a foul, but these are also quickly learned with a little training.

One great way to become an expert on the rules is to take a referee’s training course. If your league offers them, I highly suggest attending one. It will help sort out all the finer points of the rules so you can best prepare your team.

Rules Modifications

You will also need to understand any rules modifications for your league or age division.

USA Basketball and the NBA have recommended several rules modifications for various age groups. These recommendations do an excellent job of tailoring the game for the skill level of the kids. Additionally, many of these adjustments are are adopted by youth leagues around the country.

USA Basketball Rules Modifications

Rule7-8 Yr9-11 Yr12-14 Yr
Game Duration
(Minutes per quarter)
888
Court Size50′ x 42′74′ x 50′84′ x 50′
Size of Ball27.5″28.5″28.5″ (Girls)
29.5″ (Boys)
Height of Basket8′9′10′
Free Throw Line 14′14′15′
3-Point LineNoneNone19’9″
Defense1-to-11-to-11-to-1
or Zone
Back Court PressNone1-to-1
in last quarter
Allowed
Game StartCoin TossCoin TossJump Ball

League-Specific Rules

I can’t over-stress the importance of modifying the game for different age groups. If your league insists on using adult rules for youth teams, you should consider finding a different league.

View of a basketball hoop from directly underneath with sky in the background.
To a child, a 10′ hoop can look extremely high.

Unfortunately, not all youth leagues will use the USA Basketball recommendations. In fact, I have yet to coach in a league that has adopted all of these changes. It’s important to review the league-specific rules that are provided.

Here’s an example of league-specific rules I was given for a team of 3rd/4th graders (mostly 9/10 years old). I’ve highlighted the rules that DO NOT align with USA Basketball recommendations.

  • 8 minute quarters
    • Clock stops only for free throws and timeouts
    • No overtime
    • Two timeouts per half
  • 28.5″ size basketball
  • 10′ hoop
  • 15′ free throw line
  • Half-court defense only
    • Person-to-person or zone defense may be played
    • Double team defense allowed
  • Five personal fouls player is out
  • Game will be 5-v-5
    • If short players, game can be played 4-v-4

My team was able to survive with these rules, but the kids could have improved development and had more success using the USA Basketball recommendations. Specifically, we could have built up our offensive confidence with a 9′ hoop and by only allowing one-on-one defense.

Customized Defensive Rules

At younger ages, the kids are not very skilled ball handlers or shooters. To help them build confidence and enjoy some success, the defense is often scaled back a bit. These rules modifications also help build proper defensive technique, so you should always be in favor of them for young players.

Most of the time, zone defenses are not allowed. This means that the players will have to play one-on-one (also known as man-to-man or person-to-person) defense. Each player is assigned to guard another player rather than guard an area of the floor. Most leagues will still allow switching for help defense, but it must always remain a one-on-one scenario.

This is also true for double teaming. Imagine being a kid who is just learning to dribble and protect the ball. Not only do you have to deal with a person guarding you, but the opposing team puts two players on just you.

Some coaches suggest that this is fine because it will leave another player open to receive a pass. The fact of the matter is that the ball handler probably won’t be able to successfully get the pass off and will lose the ball.

Defensive modifications also usually forbid or limit a full court press defense (playing defense in the back court). If a team is allowed to press on inexperienced dribblers, they can very easily win the ball back and score.

All of these defensive modifications are done to even the playing field. Without them, the game can become lopsided very quickly. Make sure you look for a league or tournament that supports the type of defensive rules that are right for your team’s age.

Communication

The parent article covers recommendations for a coach’s communication to their team. Those recommendations all apply for basketball.

With basketball being a Winter sport, you may also have to deal with snow-related cancellations. Ensure that you have proper communication channels setup for last-minute cancellations. I prefer group text messages, but some prefer to use apps like the Remind app. Find a method that works for your team and stick with it.

Start of Season Message

I always start the season off with a welcome message to the teams’ parents. This allows you to introduce yourself and pass on any information parents need to know before the season begins.

Below, I’ve included a sample welcome message I used for the start a basketball season. I’ve removed information specific to my team allowing you to use it as a template if you find it useful.

Parents –

Please reply to confirm that you received this email.

Welcome to the [Year] season of basketball! I’ll be coaching your kids this year and am looking forward to meeting them. My intent is to help them improve their basketball kills, play competitive games, and have fun!

You can reach me via email ([email address]) or cell ([phone number]) if you ever have any questions. Please confirm your email address and cell phone number so I can make sure my contact list is accurate.

Below is everything you need to know for the upcoming basketball season.

Schedule:

I will use a shared Google calendar for our team schedule. You can access it here: [link to calendar]

You can add this calendar to your Google account by clicking the +Google button at bottom of calendar. It will then be available in your Google calendar app.

I will also send weekly emails (usually on the weekend) reminding you of the schedule for the coming week. Additionally, I use text messages to communicate cancellations or other last minute changes.

Games will start [date of first game] but specific times are not yet posted. I plan to get in [number] practices before our first game.

I have scheduled practices for the first few weeks to get us started but will schedule more after the game schedule is posted. We will practice twice a week until games start and drop to once a week afterward. Practice nights/times will vary to accommodate schedules.

Our first practice will be [date], [start time]-[end time] at [location]

If you can’t make it to a game or practice, please send a message to let me know.

Equipment:

This age division uses a 28.5″ basketball. If everyone can bring a ball to practice it is helpful so we have enough for drills. I will have a few extras on hand, but it won’t be enough for everyone.

Other equipment needed is a pair of basketball / gym shoes. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Just something they can change into when they get to the gym so we don’t track snow and muck onto the court.

Rules to be aware of:

There are a few league-specific rules I want to pass on so you are not confused when watching our games. For this age division, our league plays with a running clock and does not allow zone defense or a full court press.

Additionally, the league does something unique with free throws. On a shooting foul, the fouled team is automatically awarded 1 point and will shoot 1 free throw for an attempt at a second point. This rule is to help keep the games moving.

Let me know if you have any questions and see you at practice!

Thanks!
[Your signature]

Costs

While it can be costly to play on some teams, basketball does offer great opportunities to keep costs low.

The first cost consideration is the league or tournaments you intend to take part in. There are many leagues available that will offer varying levels of cost.

Many city rec leagues use volunteers as coaches, referees, and administrators. As a result, their player fees are extremely reasonable. You can likely find one of these leagues for $20-$40 per player. Depends on what the league provides (if anything) for uniforms.

If you decide to play in a few tournaments, it will be more costly. Tournament entry fees typically range from $100-$300 per team. I try to stick to the cheaper ones.

The rest of your costs are likely to come from equipment. At a minimum, parents will have to buy a pair of basketball or gym shoes for their child, but they can find shoes for reasonable prices at many sporting goods stores.

Equipment

The required player equipment for basketball is quite minimal. Basically, the only things the players really need to have is a pair of basketball shoes and a uniform. I also recommend each player have their own ball to bring to practice for drills.

Equipment ItemImportance
UniformRequired
Basketball / Gym ShoesRequired
BasketballRecommended

Basketball Shoes

The main reason to have a pair of basketball shoes is to protect the gym floors. Some gyms will even require that you have a pair of shoes specifically for gym use. Basketball is played primarily in the Winter and there’s a lot of snow, salt, and muck that can be tracked in on shoes.

Secondarily, basketball shoes are designed with different soles to provide traction on smooth gym floors. The floors that youth teams play on aren’t always in the best condition. They are dusty, dirty, or sometimes worn. If you don’t have shoes that help with traction, the kids will slide around and could injure themselves.

Basketball Shoes vs Running Shoes

Ideally, look for shoes with real rubber soles rather than the the foam-based soles found on many running shoes. For the best traction, find shoes with a sole pattern incorporating many small grooves.

Compare the two shoes below. The top shoe is the sole of a running shoe. It is built with a hexagonal pattern and uses a foam-based material. The bottom shoe is meant for basketball. It has a rubber sole and uses a grooved pattern to provide the best traction on gym floors.

Comparison of sole on basketball shoe to running shoe. From nike.com
The top shoe is a running shoe that uses a foam-based sole. The bottom shoe is a basketball shoe with a rubber sole and a small, grooved pattern. Much better for gym floor traction.
Images from Nike.com

Should Basketball Shoes be High-Tops?

Many people incorrectly assume that basketball shoes need to be high-tops to support the ankle. Several studies have been done concluding that high-top shoes don’t provide any additional protection against ankle injuries. There are plenty how low-top basketball shoe options available today, so really it should be a player preference.

Like most things, there is a huge variety of basketball shoes available at a wide range of prices. Watch for sales near the start of the season and you can snag some nicer, name brand shoes for a good price.

Basketballs

It’s not required, but I do recommend each player has their own ball to bring to practices. This will give you the best opportunity to keep everyone busy during drills. Remember that different age groups use different sized balls.

Age DivisionBall Size
7-8 Yr27.5″
9-11 Yr28.5″
12-14 Yr28.5″ (Girls)
29.5″ (Boys)

Basketballs come in outdoor and indoor versions. The outdoor versions are usually made from rubber and are built for durability on concrete surfaces. They often have very nice grip to them when they are new.

Indoor balls are made from synthetic, composite leather, or real leather. Real leather balls are going to be the most expensive and are generally not necessary at this level of play.

I have had great luck with the Nike True Grip balls. They are reasonably priced, have good grip, and hold up well after repeated use at indoor practice.

Coach’s Equipment

As the coach, you will also need to have some equipment available to use at practices and games. My recommended list of coach’s equipment is:

Uniforms

Basketball uniforms can be anything from a t-shirt to a complete set of matching shorts and jerseys in home and away colors.

Jerseys should have numbers on front and back for easy identification during the game. Some teams will opt to put names on the back of the jerseys, but I prefer to go without names. That way the jerseys can be handed down as players outgrow them.

If you’re playing in a league, there’s a chance that they will provide jerseys for the players. If you need to purchase your own uniforms, I’ve found a simple, reversible mesh tank top jersey is an economical option. These can often be purchased with screen printing for under $20 each.

If you’re looking for a good place to purchase jerseys, my go-to site is allsportsuniforms.net. I’ve ordered from them many times for other sports and highly recommend them.

Practices

Initial Practice Plan

At the beginning of the season you have limited time to cram in a lot of stuff before your first game. With that in mind, I’ve provided a suggested practice plan leading up to your first game.

This plan is best for 3rd-6th grade teams with a mix of player experience. For experienced players some things will be review but it is always helpful to reinforce concepts. The plans also utilize a lot of jump-stop shooting, but if you have more experienced players, layups would be appropriate to add.

In future articles, I will give more detail on the drills and games suggested in this practice plan.

Practice 1

  • Coach and player introductions
  • Communicate player expectations
  • Dynamic warm-ups
  • Dribbling basics and practice
  • Passing basics and practice
  • Shooting basics and practice
  • Fun game using dribbling skills
  • Verbal review of practice concepts
  • Choose a team name

Practice 2

  • Dynamic warm-ups
  • Dribbling quick review and practice
  • Introduce cross-over dribbling move
  • Passing quick review and practice
  • Shooting quick review and practice
  • Introduce jump-stop shooting and practice
  • Fun game
  • Review of concepts
  • Decide on a team breakdown

Practice 3

  • Dynamic warm-ups
  • Dribbling practice with cross-overs
  • Jump-stop shooting practice
  • Introduce give-and-go drill with jump-stop shot
  • Introduce screen setting
  • Defense basics and practice
  • Free play scrimmage
  • Review of concepts
  • Team breakdown

Practice 4

  • Dynamic warm-ups
  • Dribbling practice with cross-overs
  • Give-and-go jump-stop shooting drill
  • Review defense and practice
  • Screens with cross-overs and basket cuts
  • Introduce offensive movements (not an offense)
  • Free play scrimmage
  • Review of concepts
  • Team breakdown

Practice 5

  • Dynamic warm-ups
  • Dribbling practice with cross-overs
  • Give-and-go jump-stop shooting drill
  • Review defense and practice
  • Screens with cross-overs and basket cuts
  • Review offensive movements
  • Longer scrimmage
  • Team breakdown

Games

Leagues or Tournaments

For basketball, I always like to start with league play. Leagues typically have regularly scheduled game days and usually no more than one game at a time. This should require less time commitment from parents and players and be a good way to ease into the sport.

While leagues may keep scores and records, there usually aren’t any trophies or medals on the line. This allows all teams to focus a little more on development and fun rather than just winning.

There are plenty of league options available. As I said earlier, I really like the YMCA leagues and would recommend it for you.

A closeup shot of a basketball tournament bracket.
Look for tournaments that are not too expensive and where the competition level and rules are suited well for your team.

For most teams that have at least a year of league experience under their belt, I like to throw in a couple tournaments. Provided that those tournaments are a good fit for your team. I look for tournaments that are no more than three games. Any more than that and the kids don’t have enough energy left to play.

If youre team is not very experienced, look for the small-town tournaments with only few teams in them. Sometimes they may be listed as town-team, school-team, or B-level tournaments.

You’ll also want to reach out to the coordinator to ask about rules. Before signing up for the tournament, make sure the rules work for you. Ideally, they will be close to the recommendations from USA Basketball.

Coach’s Game Plan

Substituting players in basketball is a very fluid thing. Unlike baseball or soccer, you won’t need or want to have your full game lineups set ahead of time. Although it does take a little planning to ensure everyone is getting good amounts of playing time.

I suggest planning out your starting five and then having a rough plan of who can sub in for them. When doing this, think about the kids on the court as a unit. They won’t all have the same skills or abilities, so you’ll want to have balance mix of speed, agility, height, etc. on the court.

If you’re running an offense, keep in mind the positions that the kids have practiced. You probably don’t want to sub a post player in for your point guard leaving you with no one to dribble the ball up the court.

In short, know your players and be ready to react to game situations to find the proper times to get everyone in.

Pre-Game Activities

When your players arrive to the game, use an abbreviated version of your practice warm-ups. This way everyone knows how to get started. Here’s my recommended pre-game routine:

  • Dynamic warm-ups
  • Jump-stops and / or layups
  • Give-and-go layups
  • If time permits, some light 2-on-1

After warm-ups go over any game notes and strategy reminders. You might review setup for inbound plays, the offense, or specific defensive match-ups.

Finally, just before they take the court, have the entire team take part in a breakdown. This is your opportunity to get them excited and get their adrenaline pumping for the game. So put effort into it! Show them that you’re excited too. Starting with an energized team goes a long way.

Summary

You now have all the basic information you need to start coaching basketball for the first time. Stay tuned for future articles detailing drills, plays, and other tips.

As always, remember to take the balanced approach in your youth basketball coaching!

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